The world turns its attention each year to Louisville, Kentucky, during the first Saturday in May for the running of the famous Kentucky Derby, one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. The rest of the year people often travel to Kentucky, a state where more barrels of bourbon are produced than there are people, to experience the massive trail of bourbon distilleries.
But there’s more to Louisville than horse racing and bourbon.
In the heart of the city lies Bend and Zen Hot Yoga, a yoga studio dedicated to bringing the best yoga practice it can offer to each individual student. From the moment a student walks in the door of the studio to when they leave, the goal of the studio is to make everyone feel welcome. Meredith Conroy, a partner of Bend and Zen, explained their vision was to make students feel like they were walking into a spa, a place they could relax from a stressful world.
“Walking into the studio, I hope first and foremost it is welcoming,” said Conroy. “One of our primary tenants is we welcome all. We wanted the environment to feel safe and luxurious so people can really enjoy their time. With the busyness of modern life and everyone running a million directions each day, we want to be the place where you get to slow down. It was important for us to keep that as part of the package you get at Bend and Zen.”
Bend and Zen officially opened its doors in 2015, but the idea has been a work in progress in Conroy’s mind for much longer.
Conroy had been working in the corporate world, and about 10 years ago, after taking hot yoga classes for some time, she took a leave of absence from her job to travel to Brazil for a five-week, 300-hour teacher training program.
“I still have my notebook from my very first day of that teacher training when we were supposed to write down our ultimate goal in a goal-setting workshop,” said Conroy. “It was a series of questions asking what I wanted from the training, where I wanted to be in two years, where I wanted to be in five years and so on. Even then I knew I wanted to open a studio. It was the ultimate goal.”
Conroy came back from Brazil prepared to completely dive into the yoga teaching community in Louisville. After a year of teaching nights and weekends, she left her job in the corporate world and pursued teaching fully.
“I tried to get my name out and would teach anywhere that would have me,” said Conroy. “I got to know the Louisville yoga community really well. That was extremely important to me because I wanted to be fully immersed in it. There was a time where I was teaching up to 16 or 17 classes a week at five to six different places.”
However, Conroy knew she still had more to offer the community on top of teaching classes. “The stars aligned,” as she described it, as she was contacted by her friend Mitch Collins, who was looking for an investment opportunity. He was a longtime fan of yoga and thought it would be the perfect business venture for the two to take together.
“What has been so successful about our partnership is that I bring the yoga expertise and Mitch comes into play as the businessman and entrepreneur,” said Conroy. “From the start it was a tandem effort of him working to get the lease negotiated and me working with contractors, plumbers and architects to design the studio space. We were pooling all those resources together to get Bend and Zen up and running in a quick turnaround. We were open within six months after our decision to go into business together.”
At Bend and Zen, the beauty of its success is in the small details. What a student may not even notice in their experience is what Conroy puts emphasis on. She works behind the scenes to ensure not a single aspect of a client’s experience is missed.
One way the studio focuses on the details is taking away what may be a student’s anxiety of forgetting something needed for class. Whether it be water or a yoga mat, Conroy explained they offer anything a student may need for a class, completely free of charge.
“Sometimes we have clients who decide they can fit in a 4:30 class after work, but they didn’t have time to grab their mat or a towel from home in the morning,” said Conroy. “At another studio they would have to spend money to rent these items, but we take care of all those things for them. If someone is running late and they have to grab a mat, they can do that here. I believe that sets us apart in the industry.”
Another thing the studio is sure to hit the mark on is its instructors. Since her time starting as an instructor, Conroy realized the importance of knowing who’s who in the yoga community. After that, she offers them competitive compensation along with constant support.
“What I learned from my days in corporate America is if you want the most talented folks you are going to have to invest resources into getting and maintaining top-tiered individuals,” said Conroy. “That is something that is very important for us. I know cost saving in a small-run business is very important from a day-to-day perspective, but you have to think about if it is worth the incremental savings you may get over time by not investing as much in your staff and teachers. The answer I have learned over the years is no. It is super important to play the long game and not be shortsighted with some things.”
With 21 instructors and 44 classes a week offered at Bend and Zen, there is sure to be a class scheduled in a time frame possible for every student. However, determining which class and instructor goes where on the schedule was a trial-and-error process at first for Conroy.
Industry standards hold that weekends, Mondays and evenings during the week tend to be the most popular class times, and Conroy suggested studio owners place the cream of their instructor crop during those time frames. She also advised doing market research for your area, as each is a bit different in regard to what styles of class offerings are popular. For Louisville, Conroy wanted to bring hot yoga to the city, but also wanted students to have options if they wanted a slow or faster-paced class.
“While all of our classes are heated, we offer a variety of vinyasa and Hot 26 options,” said Conroy. “It is important to keep a good variety on the schedule so that everybody gets a little bit of something they love. This is a way to ensure people aren’t having to have multiple memberships at various studios. All of our classes are heated, but within those there are a variety of options to choose from.”
As Bend and Zen Hot Yoga remains successful in the Louisville market, Conroy explained the business has its eyes set on expansion. Currently, the leadership team is finalizing a location in Tennessee. “The Nashville market is really strong and there is so much growth down there, so it seemed like the perfect fit for our expansion plan,” said Conroy.
And while the plans for expansion are underway, Conroy has no plans of wavering from her ultimate goal that she wrote down in her journal during teacher training. She constantly reminds herself of the advice she would give a new studio owner getting into the industry.
“Pick your lane and then do the very best job at it,” said Conroy. “If you are doing hot yoga, do hot yoga and be the best at it. I think that was really important to me. I knew I needed a laser focus on what our product was and make that the very best it could possibly be, and I think we are doing a great job at that.”